Sarah Robinson saw a little girl get a drink of water one day. Robinson will never forget her, no matter how many more tortured children she sees.
Friday is the 125th anniversary of the Wichita Children’s Home, so Robinson, the director, has been reminiscing.
She said she was walking down a hallway at the home that day, about 10 years ago, and saw the girl, maybe 8 years old, bending over a water fountain. To keep her hair out of the water, she brushed back her bangs, exposing her face.
And Robinson caught her breath.
“She had a perfect imprint of a pair of scissors burned onto her forehead,” Robinson said. Someone, a grownup in that child’s home, had decided that punishment could mean heating scissors on a stove and applying them to a child’s head.
“I probably looked shocked, though I tried not to. When she saw the look on my face, she tossed her head a little bit, and took pity on me, and said, ‘Oh, don’t worry. I am here now.’”
“Here,” meaning safe inside the Wichita Children’s Home.
This is Robinson’s 30th year as director. She will celebrate Friday’s anniversary like any other day. She will supervise children cared for by a staff of 90 whom Robinson calls “the most underpaid good people anywhere.”
And she will think hard, as she always does, about how to raise money. There is never quite enough.
In October she will help put on a celebration of the home’s history, which will serve as yet another fundraiser.
On Thursday, the day before the anniversary, the Children’s Home took in another 15 children by 4 p.m., said Susan Uhlik, who is supervising intake at the home this summer. They were brought in for emergency shelter by police working cases, Robinson said.
When police find possible abuse, or when they make criminal arrests and find children in those homes, they take them to the Children’s Home.
Some have been abused.
“The first baby I ever saw here was a baby boy who had a spiral fracture of the leg,” Robinson said.
Robinson has walked many times past a document hanging on a wall. It’s the document signed by charter member operators of the Wichita Children’s Home on July 19, 1888. The first child was brought to the home in May of that year.
That was tens of thousands of children ago. The home shifted from being an orphanage to its current role as a crisis shelter. It also supports children facing a family crisis. It serves 5,000 children and young people every year now, Robinson said.
Several hundred are young people ages 16 to 22 in BRIDGES, a transitional living program. One member of that group is Chad Walker, 19, who grew up in Haysville and got himself in trouble with drugs and crime, he said. He said Thursday that staff members helped him better his life.
The world still judges him, he said.
“As soon as I mention my charges in job applications, no one wants to hire me.”
But the Children’s Home staff never judges.
“They care about me,” Walker said. “They help me with transportation. I’ve got a job in the kitchen. I am enrolled at WATC (Wichita Area Technical College).”
‘Day after day after day’
Thousands of other children served are runaways, whom Robinson’s staff tries to lure off the streets into safety.
Karen Countryman-Roswurm says the staff fiercely advocates for all the children, binding their wounds, keeping them in school, telling them they are worth something, as they once told her.
In the 1990s, among Wichita social workers, Karen Countryman was Wichita’s best-known runaway teen. She ran away from the Children’s Home more than once.
“It is really important for our community to understand and respect and honor the fact that we have had an agency and an organization in our own city that does good work regardless of funding streams or regardless of the popularity or unpopularity of human justice issues,” Countryman-Roswurm said Thursday.
“They don’t care how little money they might have. They don’t care how hard the work can be. They help those children day after day after day.”
At 17, after she stopped running away, the Children’s Home hired her as a Street Outreach rescuer of runaways, driving at night along the same streets she walked as a lost child.
The human trafficking she saw, where pimps exploit vulnerable children, led her to earn her doctorate in psychology last year. She now directs Wichita State University’s Center for Human Trafficking. Robinson, now one of her close friends, has watched her become a national authority on human trafficking.
“For me, the Home will always be a home in my heart,” Countryman-Roswurm said. “It created the context in which I have built my whole entire career. It is the foundation of what I do.”
A history of helping
Robinson said about 100 children were brought to the home every year from 1888 to about 1974. After 1974, the number bumped to 500 a year until 1985, when it increased to 1,000. Since 1995, it’s been about 1,500 a year. So that is roughly 50,600 children, she said.
One of those children, according to the Children’s Home scrapbook, showed up in the mid-1930s. The scrapbook contains a Wichita Eagle story from 1938.
It tells the following story:
“Several years ago a young woman brought a one year old baby boy to the home, requesting that he be left there temporarily. The woman falsely represented herself as a widow.”
She never came back, the story says. And she was not a widow. She had run off with a another man, leaving her Wisconsin husband, taking his child and money.
Two years later, the story said, the boy was 3, living at the Wichita Children’s Home. A man showed up one day, having come to Wichita from Wisconsin after he learned that his car, taken by his wife, had been abandoned here.
But he did not care about his car, the story said. He had come to find his boy.
“At the sight of the father and son, the authorities at the home were convinced that the man was the father,” The Eagle story said.
“The boy, however, did not know his father.
“At this, Miss Harriet Barker, caseworker at the home, asked the father if he had ever sung to the child.
“She asked him to sing some of the old songs.
“When he did, the child ran to his father, for out of the past there came a memory of the songs his father sang.”